Psalm 78:17–31; Numbers 35:31–Deuteronomy 1:18; Luke 4:1–13

Psalm 78:17–31: The recounting of Israel’s history in the wilderness continues as our poet mostly emphasizes the people’s complaining and God’s inexhaustible patience: “And still they offended Him more,/ to rebel against the High One in the parched land.” (17) They are hungry and don’t see how they’ll be fed as they spoke querulously against God: “And they spoke against God./ They said “Can God set a table in the wilderness?” (18) This is a question we are likely to ask today when we see only hate and discord around us? And we know the answer: he has indeed set us a table in the person of Jesus Christ.

The psalmist points out that God has already given them water, and the psalmist quotes the people asking incredulously, “Can He also give bread?/ Will He ready flesh for His people?” (20) The poet then reminds us of God’s justifiable anger at the faithlessness of Israel: “Then the Lord heard and was angered,/…and wrath, too, went up against Israel./ For they had no faith in God/ and they did not trust in His rescue.” (21, 22) How often we find ourselves in exactly the same frame of mind, believing our straits are too dire for God’s intervention—and then we have the effrontery to complain that God is not acting or moving fast enough.

The psalmist describes the arrival of manna in a beautiful metaphor: “And He changed the skies above,/ and the doors of the heavens he opened/ and the grain of the heavens He gave to them.” (24) Our poet even explains how God moved nature to cause the manna to land square in the middle of the Israelite’s camp: “He moved the east wind across the heavens/ and drove the south wind with His might.” (26) and the compares the manna as a strange new rain: “And rained flesh upon them like dust.” (27)

God provided, “and they ate and were fully sated.” (29) The psalmist then describes the incident of the surfeit of quails described in Numbers 11 and how God put down the subsequent rebellion: “They were not revolted by their craving,/ their food was still in their mouths,/ when God’s wrath went up against them,/ and He killed their stoutest fellows.” (30, 31)

What we see in this condensed history is just how much God provided; how quickly he answered the pleas of Israel, but how he still meted out harsh punishment for Israel’s relentless complaining and faithlessness. I’m driven to ask myself, am I complaining against God in complaining about the church?

Numbers 35:31–Deuteronomy 1:18: Once again, the Moravians have us bridge the end of one book and the beginning of another in a single reading.

The book of numbers ends rather abruptly with a disquisition on the marriage of female heirs, as we read the Numbers version of the daughters of Zelophehad, who had no male heirs. Here the question focuses on what we could call “cross-tribal inheritance.” The daughters are indeed free to “marry whom they think best,” but “it must be into a clan of their father’s tribe that they are married,” (8) For the accountants writing Numbers it’s all about the inheritance not being able to cross a tribal boundary. This rule is more important than the potential romantic love that a daughter might find in a man from another tribe. The law is clear: “No inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for each of the tribes of the Israelites shall retain its own inheritance.’” (36:9) This sounds to me almost like a form of maintaining racial purity.

In the culture of that time, it was all about the inheritance and the dowry. And the authors are pleased to report that “Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, married sons of their father’s brothers.” (11) which sounds to me like they married their cousins. But in the final point of this entire book, the all-important “inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s clan.” (36:12)

Numbers closes appropriately enough, on a note of precision, this time, geographic: “These are the commandments and the ordinances that the Lord commanded through Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.” (36:13)

Deuteronomy opens with a lengthy speech by Moses, and unlike Numbers where the authors write about Moses only in the third person, here we read Moses speaking for himself in the first person as he reviews the many events that have occurred during the forty years wandering in the wilderness. First he observes that “God has multiplied you, so that today you are as numerous as the stars of heaven.” (1:10) and that remembers asking God, “how can I bear the heavy burden of your disputes all by myself?” (12)

Moses tells the people how God directed him to set up a governmental structure: “I took the leaders of your tribes, wise and reputable individuals, and installed them as leaders over you, commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, commanders of tens, and officials, throughout your tribes.” (15) And that justice must be carried out fairly: “ I charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien…hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s.” (17)

In this opening chapter, we have a clear statement not only of the foundation of Judeo-Christian law, but of the basic organizational tenets of a nation. We owe an awful lot to God and Moses. Would that we can preserve fair rule of law and a coherent societal structure here in 21st century America.

Luke 4:1–13: Immediately following his baptism, Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” (2) Unlike Mark who merely notes that Jesus was “in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan,” (Mark 1:13) Luke gives us virtually every detail of the interaction between Jesus and Satan.

The Jesus-Satan dialog is socratic: a temptation is posed by Satan and Jesus replies, quoting Scripture to say why he won’t succumb. This is a form of back-and-forth argument that would be familiar to Luke’s community, doubtless aware of Plato, who had written almost 400 years before Jesus appears on the scene.

In this dialog, Luke lays out three themes of Jesus’ ministry about the Kingdom of God, which Luke will expand on in the course of his gospel:

First, there is more to life than its physicality: “One does not live by bread alone.” (4)

Second, there is more to life than acquiring—and worshipping—power: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” (8)

Third, we are never alone, but are protected from Satan when we are in the Kingdom: “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’” (10)

At the end of this temptation, Satan “departed from him until an opportune time.” (13) We might wonder when this “opportune time” occurs. Frankly, it occurs every day—and will do so until the end of history. Unfortunately, we are far weaker than Jesus and succumb to Satan’s temptations all the time.

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